Amazon Fire Phone: A good phone that needs another layer of polish


The Fire Phone, unboxed. (Photo by Hayley Tsukayama)

The Fire Phone hits the AT&T network on Thursday. It's Amazon's first foray into the smartphone world, and a particularly clear articulation of how chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos thinks Amazon.com should fit into its customers' daily lives.

Which is to say, in every possible way.

There's no denying that this is, whole hog, an Amazon phone -- and in a very personal way. Information about my latest Amazon order was immediately accessible, with a flick of the wrist. So, too, were recommendations for books, movies and music that I might like based on things I've bought in my decade or so as an Amazon customer. The phone also comes with a free year of Amazon's $99 Prime subscription, which gets users access to unlimited streaming video, streaming music and two-day shipping at no extra cost.

Recent apps, books or movies you use show up in the carousel – a menu of large icons that act as shortcuts to the latest things you’ve opened – along with suggestions of what to buy next. Users have the option to turn off the recommendations if they don't want them. You can also remove carousel items if it starts feeling cluttered.

As a tie-in to Amazon, then, the Fire Phone has no parallel. But as a phone? The story gets a bit more complicated.

In many ways, it is a good piece of hardware, for $199. Its 4.7-inch screen is great for video without being so big that it stretches your hands. It's dense, but not heavy, and feels like a premium product. The phone's battery life is a bit short -- I had to recharge in the course of a normal day of use -- so users will have to keep a cord handy.

The screen is a main selling point, ably showing off high-quality streaming video and visual effects, such as "dynamic perspective" -- a feature that means that the phone adjusts based on the position of your head. In apps that use dynamic perspective, images shift as you tilt your head. In many of Amazon's own apps, slightly tilting the phone away from you will also bring up little pieces of information, similar to mouseover text on a Web site.

Far and away, the best feature of the phone is the amount of memory it has. The Fire Phone comes in two basic models: one with 32 GB of memory, and one with 64 GB, as opposed to the iPhone which starts with a 16 GB at the low end.

The review unit provided by AT&T to The Washington Post, which is owned by Amazon chief executive Bezos, was the smaller of the two, but still left me plenty of room for downloading videos, music, apps and books. That makes sense, considering all of the media that Amazon wants you to put on this phone. The device storage comes in addition to unlimited cloud storage for any photos you take on the Fire Phone's 13 MP camera.

That camera also acts as your main portal to commerce, by way of the Firefly text and product recognition feature, which allows users to scan book covers and barcodes. Users can activate Firefly by holding down the dedicated camera button on the side of the phone.  Firefly is the sort of feature that seems useful, but needs to be assessed over a longer period of time. It was also nice to be able to call up the feature to pull phone numbers and e-mail addresses from printed material with reasonable accuracy -- my name isn't "Tsukoyama," but it's close.

Even at my desk, Firefly was able to identify several items simply by scanning the item's barcode, which in turn called up a product listing on Amazon. Not every product gets recognized every time, making it more of a neat trick than an indispensable tool, for now.

Three examples of how the Fire phone helps you shop on Amazon. Screengrab by Hayley Tsukayama
Three examples of how the Fire Phone helps you shop on Amazon. Screengrabs by Hayley Tsukayama

Many other software features had that same feel--of being cool ideas that needed a few more rounds of testing to be ready for primetime. The look of the menus can be a bit jarring -- ugly, even. And the basic navigation design of the phone's operating system was still a little rough around the edges. Users tilt the phone to access menus on the left and right sides of the phone, but sometimes the movement didn't trigger the menus. Other times it required a movement so sharp that it felt the phone could have flown out of my hand.

Finally, I personally had trouble getting Amazon's instant customer service feature, MayDay, to fire up consistently because of a weak WiFi or cellular signal. But it works well when you can connect, and the on-call staff responds promptly to questions. It's a feature that would be particularly useful if the Fire Phone was aimed at people buying their first smartphones.

All in all, the Fire Phone is a good phone that needs another layer of polish. There are a lot of elements here that are promising. But there's room to improve, and the phone's a little too rough to recommend to anyone who isn't a die-hard Amazon shopper.

Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.
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Hayley Tsukayama · July 23